Is writing a form of exile? What I mean by this question is whether writing is an act of reconciling oneself with what is lost either through life’s experiences, a trauma of loss, or that one writes because he or she is aware that they must because they are in exile. The act of writing is not simply an expression or a unique perspective, but an act of survival, a coping mechanism for dealing with the world.
The act of writing, irrespective of language, place, or time, is the same: sitting down and either moving a pen across paper or fingers across a keyboard; and this has been a constant across the millennium. The conflict and struggle is with language: fighting it, reining it in to serve the writer’s intent and purpose, independent of the meaning the audience or critics assign it. A writer owns his or her words until they are published; and that, for better or worse, is where success, failure, or misunderstanding begins.
I will simplify: writing is rooted in language and observation. Writers write to convey real or imagined information. Readers interpret.
“I’m fine,” she said.
The reader, knowing his or her own experiences and knowing the covenant between writer and reader through a shared language, knows not all is well and that she is not fine for whatever reason. Although it seems romantic, the act of writing is to some degree an act of exile, because to write is to set aside time outside of society and to assert an interpretation. To communicate something. Is writing, therefore, an antisocial act or an act of ego? If so, then all writing is inherently political.
Those who write do so because they are compelled to do so for whatever reason. What do we make of writers who are in literal exile? Writers who write across not only a cultural divide but also across a divide of language? There are numerous writers who have written their works in their native tongue and have been translated, but I am thinking specifically of writers who had started in a foreign language [their native language] and then switched to English, making it their vehicle of written expression. Joseph Conrad‘s third language was English after his native Polish and then French, the language of educated middle-class Poles of his day. Thomas Mann wrote in his native German and then in English. Joseph Brodsky, a Russian, learned English later in life. There are others whose first or native language was English and then wrote in another language: Samuel Beckett is a prime example. James Baldwin is an example of a writer who always wrote in English, but had gone into exile because he disliked the direction that the United States had been taking with respect to race relations, just as Paul Robeson or W.E.B Du Bois had, as well as on matters of sexuality. Patricia Highsmith was the opposite: she had left the United States because it was becoming liberal about race relations. An entire cadre of German-Jewish intellectuals formed the Weimar on the Pacific.
What of the writer, born in the United States, in a multicultural household? Is it accurate to generalize that there is a conflict in language when, as a nation, we are compelled to assimilate and forget the language and customs of the “old country” wherever that might be, forget the reasons why we left? Assimilation seems potentially an argument for amnesia.We forget and we reject culture and language.
In classical times, to be exiled was to be sent to live among the barbarians, those who did not speak your language or share your customs. For Ovid, it was to live in Tomis near the Black Sea. The Greeks used to send upcoming leaders abroad for fear that they might gain too much power. To live among the “barbarians” meant to be lost, at the margin of civilization.
The writer in exile dealing with his or her native language and writing in English must contend with another matter: a perpetual sense of insecurity. There is a gap between two languages that sometimes cannot be bridged. For example, ask a native speaker of German what the word “Heimat” means.
English might well be “democratic” but is it possible that in “being free” too much is lost? I’m thinking of the barrier in other languages where there is a distinction between the informal and formal you (tu and vous in French; du and Sie in German; tu and Lei in Italian; tú and usted in Spanish). You make the distinction; you establish the barrier or extend the invitation to use the intimate, the informal you. Tutoie-moi in French.
I know this post offers no soft answers. In my case, English is not my first language; each time I type I am self-conscious about my writing and fear that what I am writing is not proper English. The reason English is not my first language is political in origin. My father emigrated to this country unwillingly. The choice to return was denied him. During my first few years of childhood, as my father has told me, I was completely bilingual in Spanish and English. I then lost the language through divorce; even then, though, I was exposed to two other languages through my maternal grandparents. My grandfather spoke German; my grandmother, Polish. As a child, I had always thought that when I heard my grandmother and her sister speaking Polish that they were saying “sssh” whenever I was nearby. The “s” sounds in Polish (the sibilant sounds) stand out prominently, especially to the non-native speaker. With my paternal grandparents I heard Spanish because they never fully assimilated with English. My paternal grandmother refused to learn English because she never accepted the United States as her home. My maternal grandmother, at the end of her life, had reverted to speaking only German and Polish: none of her children ever understood what she was saying because none had ever learned either of the two.
The exile treads the divide like a shadow, never feeling utterly at home in one world or the other. Whatever is written and in whatever language the hope is that the expression is universal. There is the story of the man without a country but the writer exile is altogether elsewhere, using language to find a new home and identity.
I listen. The cicadas charge the air with urgency. The humidity moves their song from murmur to sobbing in the near distance. The darkness seems to remind me I cannot hear well, but I listen.
You are the mathematician of my sorrow. We adore the rigor, the rightness of the logic. We remember the chalk on our hands and the pounding heart at the blackboard. Do you remember the difficulty of solving unknown variables? For twenty years you were the unknown variable in the equation of my life. I never called you father. I never called anyone father. A boy can love what he never had. I listen.
After these many years and numerous theorems and derivations I would prefer the simple lesson, those rites, of you teaching me how to shave that first time, tying a tie that first time.
The morning sky has some of the redness left over from last night.
The heat will not end. Time drags interminable. Sometimes after great passion, sometimes after profound simpático the great heights of the heart are scaled, promised potentials glimpsed, or sometimes the disappointment comes in the morning to strangle the heart among the cold sheets. You hold your breath. Sometimes before the morning you hear from her that it was all a mistake. You smile and understand politely, but inside you go home humiliated.
Old friend, we both feel intensely. I have heard, listened intently. I have heard those regrets so often that I can walk into the night hiding my heartbreak, finding my way into daylight without looking at the horizon.
This is not fear of yielding. One can hone Renunciation like the machete of the macheteros, but it will do no good if there is no sweetness. It will do no good. Love is difficult for us.
Some eat and drink their emptiness. You smoked and drank like a protracted and determined suicide. Some pursue the flesh. You bedded countless women like a sensual Nihilist. There is a point, and it is not Pride, where all these distractions become degrading. I know of what I write.
Unlike your Martí, I will not die in enemy hands.
“Exile,” by Gabriel Valjan, published in kill author vol. 17; an mp3 recording of a reading of the entire poem is included. The title of this post came from altogether elsewhere: writers on exile, edited by Marc Robinson, 1994.